Thursday, September 07, 2006


While SEPTA can't be held totally at fault for this issue, there still seems to be a Scrooge like mentality when it comes to public safety on the system. Never mind the stabbings, shootings, and violent assaults that seem to have cropped up over the past several years (while other larger urban rail systems such as WMATA have reported relatively few violent crimes, and no murders in at least 2 years on its MetroRail system).

Currently, in the event of a major catastrophy - or for that matter, a BS call - underground, neither Philadelphia Police nor Fire can communicate within the subway or regional rail tunnels due to an obsolete radio system. So, while SEPTA spends money on James Bond-like bomb detection equipment, the underground radio system's shortcomings are glaringly ignored, or, in typical fashion under "Safety Czar" James B. Jordan, pushed to the back burner, as pointed out in today's Ink-waster:

Five years after 9/11, the Philadelphia region has a good grasp of what it must do to make itself safer:

Secure its international airport, patrol its port, guard its power grid, protect its refineries, safeguard its subway and trains, stockpile food and medicine, plan a large-scale evacuation, even prepare for mass cremations.

Knowing all of that is one thing. Doing it is another matter entirely.

Take the problem with SEPTA and its tunnels.

After commuters died in attacks on Madrid and London trains, the danger here is well understood.

If terrorists set off subterranean bombs, responding police and firefighters face a huge problem: Their communications don't work underground.

But rigging the tunnels for communications would cost millions. And SEPTA's security chief says that any fix would likely be obsolete by the time it was installed.

SEPTA's problem is a metaphor for disaster readiness in the region: Key problems have been identified, but solutions remain expensive and elusive.

With the terrorist threat ever-morphing and money tight, the region struggles to prioritize risk and make smart choices for an attack that might never come.

In June, a mayoral task force identified SEPTA's tunnel dilemma as one in a host of regional shortcomings. Should catastrophe strike, its report warned, Philadelphia might be "quickly overwhelmed."

Or, Philadelphia could be overwhelmed by thousands of concert-goers trying to get home after a major event on the Parkway. Oh, wait, I forgot about Live 8...

The task force's report zeroed in on SEPTA's communications troubles as an egregious failing. The FBI, too, has studied mass transit in a classified report shared with local police.

James B. Jordan, SEPTA's security chief, called the issue the agency's "highest threat area."
His explanation why is chilling because it is so matter-of-fact: "The use of an explosion has the greatest impact in an underground environment."

Jordan said it would cost $18 million or more to solve the communication problem, a sum almost as great as the entire regional Homeland Security federal grant for the coming fiscal year.

"Nobody has that kind of money," he said. "Our fear is that it would be obsolete by the time it took to install it."

SEPTA does. Problem is, it's just tied up in garbage projects such as the Cross-County and $chuylkill Valley rail corridors/boondoggles, or for other ridiculous projects requested by the political hacks across the region.

SEPTA has made stopgap fixes. In the last year, it bought a relatively inexpensive transmitter that police or firefighters could lug to an explosion or accident site to permit communication. But it might take up to 30 minutes to deliver and set up, Jordan said.

Here's a concept. How about just purchasing more SEPTA-issued portable radios as reserve and issue them to officers or fire-fighters when responding underground? Or would that make too much sense?

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